Last year, Banished to the Pen ran season previews in an “out of the box” format, wherein the writer posed questions and preceded to answer them in depth. This style of writing is familiar to any Philosophy 101 student as similar to the Platonic dialogue.
If we follow last year’s style in a writeup for the Phillies–who were the first team written last year and thus, projected to be the worst team in baseball for the second year in a row– the results will be predictable. Bad teams, specifically teams who are bad on purpose, are profoundly uninteresting with regard to the product they put on the field. The interesting bits are related to the strategies which got them into their current predicament, and their plan for getting out of it. There are, of course, other interesting parts, but we’re notoriously bad at predicting them.
So what follows is the Phillies, unpacked from the box, spilled upon the table, examined closely by the writer.
How do they score runs?
Very carefully, if at all.
What is the manager’s approach to in-game strategy?
In what will be his first full year as team manager, Pete Mackanin will continue the strategy he employed last year of maintaining some level of decency despite having nothing especially decent to present.
What verse from Ovid’s Metamorphoses might serve as a metaphor for how the Phillies got into this situation in the first place?
Let’s say it’s this one, from Book VIII:183-235, the myth of Daedalus and Icarus:
He gave a never to be repeated kiss to his son, and lifting upwards on his wings, flew ahead, anxious for his companion, like a bird, leading her fledglings out of a nest above, into the empty air. He urged the boy to follow, and showed him the dangerous art of flying, moving his own wings, and then looking back at his son. Some angler catching fish with a quivering rod, or a shepherd leaning on his crook, or a ploughman resting on the handles of his plough, saw them, perhaps, and stood there amazed, believing them to be gods able to travel the sky.
That’s pretty esoteric. Are you saying the Phillies are Icarus?
To the ancient playwrights and poets, tragedy was not a byproduct of loss. It was a result of the protagonist’s foolish pride leading to soaring heights only to watch everything they love be taken from them. The tragic figure in the myth of Icarus is not the boy whose waxen wings melt away as he sought only to feel the warmth and freedom of the sun. No, that myth is about Daedalus, Icarus’ father whose only goal was to give his son the hope of freedom.
The tragedy of the Phillies, then, is not in their 63 win-2015 season– the team’s worst record since 1969. That is the inevitable conclusion of flying too close to the sun, the crash back to the rough, cold waves.
The tragedy of the Phillies was in Ruben Amaro Jr.’s pride after he inherited the 2008 World Series Champions. He sought nothing more than to further that team’s glory, leveraging the team’s farm system to build a monument to the glory of baseball, culminating in the team winning a franchise record 102 games in 2011. He spent freely, borrowing from the team’s future to pay for the present, and laughed at those who doubted him. By 2015, he was witness as his empire was torn down around him; as the crowds, who once poured into the shrine of Citizen’s Bank Park came not to praise, but to bury him.
The tragedy of the Phillies was in Ryne Sandberg’s pride, as the Hall of Famer realized the futility of managing a team destined not for glory but for ignominy. After toiling as a Minor League manager for years, Sandberg was heir to the dynasty built by Amaro but he was a despotic ruler who lost no love as he oversaw the team fall to its lowest points before resigning in frustration in June, 2015.
The tragedy of the Phillies was in Dom Brown, who watched as all of the other exciting talents in the Phillies farm system were dealt away as currency to bolster the major league team. The former top prospect rode the tide of success to an All Star-game appearance in 2013 before his struggles to adjust overcame his tools. By the end of 2015 he found himself without a Major League home, out of options and non-tendered.
The tragedy of the Phillies was in Cliff Lee, who came to the Phillies in 2009, was dealt away in 2010, and came back in 2011 seeking the promise of a championship. Rehabbing from a shoulder injury, he missed all of the 2015 season and had his contract bought out.
The tragedy of the Phillies was in Chase Utley, who was at the center of the exciting core of the 2008 team and a cornerstone of the franchise and was traded to the Dodgers in August. The golden child of Philadelphia positioned himself as one baseball’s true villains after committing an egregious takeout slide in the playoffs.
The tragedy of the Phillies, too, was in Ryan Howard, whose albatross of a contract and struggles with injuries made him untradeable as he watched the team he won so many games with was jettisoned around him. The tragedy is in Carlos Ruiz, the fan favorite catcher whose talents as a game caller were once touted, whose talents are under scrutiny given the achievements made in analyzing catcher value. The tragedy is in Cody Asche, Freddy Galvis, Cesar Hernandez, and Darin Ruf, who were too late to join the team during its bout of success and are unlikely to be a contributing part to its next wave of glory.
The tragedy of the Phillies is not that they once were great, or that the heights to which they soared are matched only by the depths to which they have plunged. The tragedy is that these depths were dug by their own failures to adapt, to plot a true course, to avoid the clear and obvious risks of flying too close to the sun.
This makes baseball sound very sad.
After Icarus fell to the sea, Daedalus’ journey did not end. He found himself in Sicily, where he gained the favor of the king through his feats of ingenuity and invention. Though scarred by loss, his story did not end. Despite his failures, he found redemption and sanctuary.
The characters in the tragedy of the Phillies seek redemption in their own ways, and their stories are not yet finished. Amaro, Sandberg, Brown, Lee, Utley, the lot of them– they have additional stories to tell, though perhaps not with the Phillies.
You’re getting esoteric again. Get to the point.
The next chapter for the Phillies will be seek to be one of redemption and hope. New team president Andy MacPhail built upon the process Amaro had already started as the Phillies continued to dismantle the team and recreate it in a new image. Between the end of the 2014 season and the end of the 2015 season, the Phillies traded the following players: Antonio Bastardo, Jimmy Rollins, Marlon Byrd, Jonathan Papelbon, Cole Hamels, Ben Revere, Jake Diekman, Chase Utley, Ken Giles, and a number of minor leaguers including former top prospect Jesse Biddle. Additionally, they released–or at least did not resign– a number of players who had at one time been considered a valuable part of their future, including but not limited to: Dom Brown, Cliff Lee, Philippe Aumont, Justin De Fratus, Kyle Kendrick, Mike Adams, and nearly every one-year contract they had signed for the 2015 season.
In short, the Phillies of 2016 look like a very different team than the Phillies of years past.
And this is where the hope and redemption part comes in. The major league product contains only Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz from their past as contenders. All those trades resulted in a much improved Phillies farm team, and the organization has been ranked in the top 10 by Keith Law and Baseball America. Between the popular top prospect lists (ESPN, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus), the Phillies have 10 prospects who show up on on at least one list. The farm is stronger than it has been since the beginning of the Amaro era, which is sure to be the main focus of the “hope and redemption” narrative for most fans.
In addition to the top prospects, the Phillies are well-positioned to be a major competitor in the next several free agent classes. Between 2010 and 2014, the Phillies had one of the five highest payrolls in all of Major League Baseball. In 2016, they have just over $77 million committed, with all but $14 million of that off the books next year. The current expectation is that the cream of the team’s prospect crop will be ready for regular contribution by 2017. Thus, next year’s preview should see the team place a bit higher on the projected standings and the writer’s deadline for this preview should be a bit later.
But what about 2016?
Ah yes. Well, hope and redemption are not synonyms for “fun” or excitement. Still, while the 2014 and 2015 Phillies were bad teams, the 2016 Phillies appear to be a rebuilding team. And while every bad team is bad in its own way, rebuilding teams tend to all be more or less the same. The distinction here is that a bad team is rarely bad by design–the Phillies were bad for all the reasons listed above with the addition of entropy. The rebuilding Phillies are going to be as bad, possibly worse, than the 2015 team, but by design. They’re in that post-climactic denouement phase of the narrative that Amaro’s team started, the part where the chorus recounts the story and lays out its moral, while tying up the loose ends. In this case, the chorus is a group of players unlikely to be part of the next championship team, save some limited exceptions.
Third-baseman Maikel Franco and starting pitcher Aaron Nola are exciting, but imperfect: Franco needs to stay healthy to show his prodigious power but may still eventually move off third base; Nola moved quickly from first round draft pick to contributing starting pitcher but will best serve a contending team as a mid-rotation starter rather than an ace.
After Franco and Nola, there are some interesting players with far more notable flaws. Odubel Herrera, the 2015 team leader in b- and fWAR, was the best possible scenario for a Rule-5 draft selection converted from second base to center fielder. While this path may remind some fans of Shane Victorino, Herrera’s 2015 was buoyed by an exceptional .387 BABIP, and while he should continue to be a solid contributor to the team with both glove and bat, he should not be considered a future All-Star at this point.
Herrera is thus in many ways a model of the ideal rebuilding Phillie- a defensive asset who can provide an average or better bat. The Phillies hope recent acquisition Peter Bourjos will provide a glove that can compensate for the string of right fielders they’ve trotted out in the post-Hunter Pence era (including Dom Brown, Grady Sizemore, Jeff Francoeur, and somehow others still worse than those three). Aaron Altherr should provide above average defense in left field, and this year’s Rule 5 pick Tyler Goeddel is expected to be a defense-first fourth outfielder. In the middle infield, Freddy Galvis and Cesar Hernandez make up a strong defensive duo.
This leaves Ryan Howard and Maikel Franco as the 2016 Phillies’ worst gloves and best bats. We have seen how well Ryan Howard hits when no one is on base in front of him, and the ray of sunshine here for Phillies fans is that this is likely the last full season we will witness that scenario before the team declines his 2017 option.
As far as pitching, the 2016 rotation will feature Nola and an array of rookies looking for opportunity and veterans looking for a chance to put up enough value to warrant a mid-season trade. The key veterans this year, taking the place of last year’s Aaron Harang and Chad Billingsley, are Jeremy Hellickson and Charlie Morton. They are major league pitchers, which is an admirable and great thing to be, but otherwise unremarkable. The rookies, ranging from exciting to very-not-exciting are Vince Velasquez, Jared Eickhoff, Jake Thompson, Mark Appel, Brett Oberholtzer, Adam Morgan, Alec Asher, David Buchanan, Zach Eflin, Severino Gonzalez, Ben Lively, and a host of non-roster invitees.
The bullpen is a question mark, as the Phillies have invited every failed closer of the past 3 years to spring training with the hope that some combination will be a reasonable replacement for, if not Ken Giles, then just the concept of “closer.” Andrew Bailey, Edward Mujica, and Ernesto Frieri will go to spring training with the camp and maybe some of them will stick around. The rest of the bullpen includes organization fodder who throw in the low-90s.
How can we trust that things will be different this time?
The joke of the Amaro-era Phillies was that they were a backward organization, one of the few remains of the pre-sabermetric era. That the Amaro era is now over, and MacPhail has brought in a young, hungry GM in Matt Klentak, and Klentak has in turn brought in an analytics department will likely satiate the base hunger for an organization that is competing at the same level as every other team.
What remains to be seen is whether the MacPhail/Klentak Phillies can actually gain any real benefit from competing on a level playing field. Keep in mind that every team uses some type of sabermetric principles in their evaluation at this point, so expecting a team to move from the dark ages to the renaissance overnight, and then to the future soon after, may be setting the bar higher than is achievable.
Can you please summarize all this?
In short, the 2016 Phillies are a team of players ranging from replacement-level to league average, which counts as an upgrade over last year. However, this is a team designed to be replaced. They cost very little, provide very little upside, and are expected to draw very few fans to the stadium. They are a metaphor for hubris, the punishment meted out by jealous gods to the former regime for daring to fly too close to the sun. They are doomed to wander restlessly, knowing what might have been and what never was, as they attempt to remake themselves, a little wiser for their failures. The joy in the 2016 Phillies will rarely be in the product they put on the field; rather it will be in the promise of what is yet to come. That promise will always be there, even if the next product also fails. That is the story of baseball– the cycle of hope and redemption and renewal comes in with the Spring, followed by the long, Sisyphean climb through the hot Summer to the inevitable death ushered in by Fall. Each Spring, hope returns. It is Spring now, and in Philadelphia, it will be Spring for at least another year.
How many games will they win?
In some ways, every game the team plays is a victory against the forces of entropy and death, for though their dreams were vanquished they continue, unabated, to dream again.
In some ways, every game the team plays is a loss, as they are forced to reenact the performance of hope despite that hope being a long way off.
In other, more important ways, the Phillies will probably win around 70 games.
|Phi||Record||wRC+||SP ERA-||RP ERA-||DRS||UZR||BsR||Pay – $M|
|2013||.451 (24)||89 (25)||118 (25)||112 (27)||-102 (30)||-66 (29)||-8 (23)||156 (5)|
|2014||.451 (23)||85 (27)||106 (20)||99 (19)||-39 (25)||-22 (24)||11 (3)||166 (7)|
|2015||.389 (30)||86 (28)||120 (30)||97 (18)||-92 (30)||-31 (27)||-2 (21)||142 (9)|
2016 Atlanta Braves Season Preview: How Long to the Point of Know Return?
Previous post: BttP Podcast 45: SABR Awards, Red Sox, Braves